Re­pay­ing open space funds is not a man­date

Cecil Whig - - OPINION -

The Mary­land Demo­cratic Party ap­par­ently will use any ex­cuse to at­tack Repub­li­can Gov. Larry Ho­gan.

Last week, Ho­gan signed into law a bill that re­quires the state to pay back some of the money that has been di­verted from pro­grams to con­serve agri­cul­tural, ru­ral and open spa­ces.

The state be­gan Pro­gram Open Space, which pre­serves non-de­vel­oped land through fund­ing col­lected by a trans­fer tax of 0.5 per­cent on ev­ery real es­tate trans­ac­tion, in 1969.

But those funds are not locked away for their in­tended pur­poses and the pro­gram’s funds have been tar­geted by law­mak­ers and gu­ber­na­to­rial ad­min­is­tra­tions when the state has faced bud­get deficits.

Ac­cord­ing to Part­ners for Open Space, more than $1 bil­lion has been di­verted from the pro­gram since its in­cep­tion. Ac­cord­ing to the group, those funds would have pro­vided for “1,200 new and up­dated lo­cal parks, 185,000 ad­di­tional acres of pro­tected farms and forests, and 65,000 ad­di­tional acres of state parks and valu­able eco­log­i­cal ar­eas.”

House Bill 462, which pro­vides for the re­pay­ment of at least some of those funds, was ap­proved unan­i­mously by the Mary­land House of Del­e­gates and State Se­nate. The votes were 139-0 in the House and 46-0 in the Se­nate. State del­e­gates then voted 134-0 to ap­prove the bill as amended in the se­nate.

Un­der the pro­vi­sions of the law, $60 mil­lion in new fund­ing will go to pro­grams — such as Pro­gram Open Space, the Mary­land Agri­cul­tural Land Preser­va­tion Fund and Ru­ral Legacy — funded by trans­fer taxes.

Josh Hast­ings, pol­icy man­ager for the East­ern Shore Land Con­ser­vancy and chair­man of the Part­ners for Open Space steer­ing com­mit­tee, ex­plained the ra­tio­nale of fund­ing open space pro­grams through the trans­fer tax.

“You cover up land with a build­ing, you’ve got to put money back so peo­ple can have ac­cess to green space,” Hast­ings re­cently told the Whig’s sis­ter pa­per, The Star Demo­crat.

The law also re­quires that $90 mil­lion in past trans­fers from Pro­gram Open Space be re­paid with gen­eral funds start­ing in 2018, and that ad­di­tional re­pay­ments — to­tal­ing $152 mil­lion — be ap­pro­pri­ated start­ing in 2021, ac­cord­ing to the De­part­ment of Nat­u­ral Re­sources.

Hast­ings said a study done last sum­mer found a crit­i­cal need for main­te­nance at most of Mary­land’s state parks. As a re­sult, the law al­lo­cates funds for state land and park devel­op­ment, main­te­nance and re­cre­ation.

One of the more im­por­tant pro­grams for the East­ern Shore is the Ru­ral Legacy pro­gram, a sis­ter pro­gram of Pro­gram Open Space ad­min­is­tered by DNR, Hast­ings said.

Hast­ings said East­ern Shore Land Con­ser­vancy has a “very, very, very long list” of farm projects, and if fund­ing were avail­able to­day, ESLC could do “tens of thou­sands of acres in con­ser­va­tion ease­ments,” in­clud­ing some in south­ern Ce­cil County. Ru­ral Legacy funds not only pre­serve agri­cul­tural land and crit­i­cal habi­tat, but also parks and green spa­ces within towns, he said.

Although the bill passed unan­i­mously in the Demo­cratic-con­trolled Mary­land Gen­eral Assem­bly and was praised by en­vi­ron­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions and oth­ers, the Mary­land Demo­cratic Party is­sued a two-sen­tence press re­lease crit­i­ciz­ing Ho­gan for sign­ing legislation that in­cluded man­dated spend­ing af­ter the gover­nor had spo­ken out against such man­dates.

“Af­ter telling Mary­lan­ders that man­dates are bad, Larry Ho­gan cre­ated a new one when he signed HB462,” Mary­land Demo­cratic Party Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor Pat Mur­ray said in a state­ment re­leased af­ter the bill sign­ing. “Larry Ho­gan promised change and de­liv­ered po­lit­i­cal dou­ble­s­peak, and he threw away his cred­i­bil­ity on man­dates to­day.”

The man­date the law re­quires is to re­pay the Pro­gram Open Space funds state law­mak­ers and gov­er­nors have raided from the pro­gram to patch holes in the state’s bud­get in tough eco­nomic years.

There is a dif­fer­ence be­tween re­quir­ing the state to re­pay money di­verted from suc­cess­ful pro­grams that pre­serve farm­land, green space, open space and help lo­cal towns and coun­ties fund parks and the types of man­dates Ho­gan asked state law­mak­ers to re­lax in or­der to pro­vide greater flex­i­bil­ity in the bud­get.

The Mary­land Demo­cratic Party ap­par­ently can’t see that dis­tinc­tion. The party also put politics against the good of the state, at­tack­ing Ho­gan for sign­ing a bill that con­tained “man­dates” rather than ap­plaud­ing state of­fi­cials for work­ing to­gether to pass a law restor­ing some di­verted open space funds and bet­ter pro­tect­ing those funds in the fu­ture.

While we would pre­fer that trans­fer tax rev­enues be ded­i­cated for the pur­pose for which they were in­tended and law­mak­ers pro­hib­ited from raid­ing the funds for other pur­poses, HB462 is a good start. The bill’s sign­ing de­served the bi­par­ti­san sup­port it gar­nered in the Gen­eral Assem­bly, not the non­sen­si­cal po­lit­i­cal at­tack is­sued by the state’s Demo­cratic Party.

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